The Humbug Man Most towns in old New Jersey had at least one cryptic tree where witches congregated and spirits wandered free. In a town named Schooley's Mountain, rumors went 'round that casks of pirates' treasures were buried underground. It was in a grove of trees upon a mountainside, blood-thirst pirates hid their pilfered hoard before they died. Likewise, the spirits of these feisty pirates, night and day, kept vigil of their loot, lest mortal man cart it away. Native men believed and coveted these gems and gold, and hereby one of Jersey's early swindles can be told. This tale, 'tis said, took place in seventeen and eighty-eight. Schooley's Mountain, then, was wilderness and desolate. It started with two gentlemen who lived not far away; they'd heard ghosts could be raised to divulge where the treasure lay. It required abilities most mortal men lacked, but a man said to have such powers lived up in Connecticut. His name was Ransford Rogers, an enterprising man. The men rode up to meet him and negotiate a plan. When Rogers saw these eager, trusting, simple-minded folks, he also saw the opportunity to stage a hoax. A schoolmaster by profession, Rogers made plans to move down. He was to teach a boys school in nearby Morristown. There, he studied workings of the native mind, meanwhile, becoming most distinguished for his charm and pleasing style. Rogers called a meeting of the men and was awestruck. Two men had grown to forty, all prone to try their luck. A few were apprehensive; their distrust must be quelled. Feigning psychic powers, Rogers watched their qualms dispelled, and because these early settlers were a superstitious breed, the promise of vast treasure was appealing to their greed. To plan the treasure hunt, they met in secret, night by night, in back rooms or secluded fields, but always out of sight. As time passed, Rogers realized he couldn't pull it off alone; he needed help, someone to don a sheet and shriek and moan. So, to Connecticut he rode, where he engaged a friend. The duties were not difficult; he had to just pretend to be a ghost. He had to go ahead and lie in wait, nearby, where it was scheduled for the men to congregate. Then, when strategic times came, Roger's signal would go out. The ghost appeared beneath the trees to flit and prance about, emitting mystifying sounds the men didn't recognize, for he had wedged between his teeth, a metal for disguise. And, using skills at chemistry for supernatural signs, Rogers and his 'ghost' would now and then explode small mines.
Rogers led his entourage, one evening, to a place in a field, instructing each man lie flat on his face. He'd arranged this simple act to culminate his prank. The papers that he passed around, he said they all were blank. Rogers said a spirit hand would write, on one man's page their instructions, tho' distrust would set the spirit in a rage. But the warning was unneeded; these men harbored not a doubt, but what a spirit hand would come and write a message out. And tho', to most, these men would seem incredibly naive, their mentor had mesmerized them; they were programmed to believe. (The trusting men could not believe the spirit had its say, in the person of the teacher, earlier that day.) Excitement mounted as they waited for the ghost's command. Then, the papers were collected - sure enough, the spirit hand had dispatched to these loyal men the first step of their plan. When they had proved sincerity, they'd learn the next. Each man was to come up with twelve pounds, in silver and gold, and entrust it all to Rogers, their agent, just to hold. It would be refunded when their faith had proven true, but it must be kept in strictest confidence, what they must do. Now, twelve pounds in those days was not too easy to come by. If would take determination, but they promised they would try. Some believers sold their cattle or took mortgage on their farms, but since they'd soon be wealthy, they couldn't see any harm. When some raised eight or ten pounds and couldn't get the rest, Rogers was condescending if he knew they'd done their best. He'd listen with compassion, and take all they could raise, and in return, he'd waller in their undulating praise. So Rogers reaped in gold and silver, more than most could spare. In early Spring, the men became impatient for their share. But, Rogers needed extra time. He told them where to meet, where he'd employed a group of 'ghosts' to shout and stamp their feet. He said there'd been disloyalty and the spirits were enraged. Filled with fear, the men quaked at the exhibition staged. Each man, in turn, denied the charge for which he had been blamed with Rogers intervening - his men's faithfulness proclaimed. He assured the distraught spirit that their secret was secure, adding that his men were anxious for their expedition tour. The ghosts, now quieted, gave Rogers orders to relay that their treasure hunt would take place in the early part of May. Then the 'ghosts' passed out to every man packets of dust. It was the dust of pirates' bones and represented 'trust.' But it must be kept a secret. Tokens of their faith renewed, the men left with their packets and in a trusting mood. But, as for Rogers, this hick town would soon be far behind. A woman's curiousity had never crossed his mind.
But, alas, one of the men's wives found his packet quite by chance, while searching for some loose coins in her sleeping husband's pants. WITCHCRAFT - it was the first thought of this superstitious wife. Her husband never had a secret from her in his life, and so she woke her husband and nagged him 'til he broke. Sworn to secrecy, she listened to the words he spoke. She couldn't believe her ears; she'd never heard a tale so strange. She kept her promise - until she was out of hearing range. The law picked up the story. Rogers found himself in jail, but a trusting follower was quick to go his bail. Then, townsmen caught him leaving town - that wasn't in the rules. They sized up the situation, realized they'd been played for fools. His getaway thus halted, they demanded his arrest, and faced with his accusers, Rogers finally confessed. But somehow Rogers flew the coop; townfathers searched in vain. But along with all their money, he was never seen again. - Lillian Arnold Lopez "Pineylore"
Published on Jan 20, 2010